Sally Shalam continues her travels around the UK with the help of leading car hire company Hertz. This month she visits Hampshire to retrace the footsteps of literary legend Jane Austen, and finds exquisite stately homes, scenic country walks and modern pubs with rooms – another ideal autumnal break.
Gently elbowing my way through a horde of excited, chattering schoolchildren, I found a small, unassuming writing table in a corner of the dining room. No larger than an occasional table for a pot plant, perhaps, yet here was the very place where Jane Austen sat with her quill pen and wove irresistible tales of the English landed gentry. At this table she completed Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma and more.
In 2017, Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes, special events have been held around the country to celebrate writers from Arthur Ransome to Arnold Bennett and characters from Harry Potter to Sherlock Holmes. The bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death, in 1817, has played a central part. Most people associate Austen with the city of Bath but the school group and I came in search of her in the village of Chawton, where she lived from 1809 until shortly before her death in Winchester in 1817.
The journey is one I’d gladly undertake any time (perhaps in summer next time, for Regency Week, an annual celebration of Austen’s life, held in late June). The lanes approaching the village are hugged by woodland and gently undulating crop fields. Now, in late autumn, the quietude was disturbed only by skittering dry leaves and I could almost imagine Miss Austen somewhere up ahead, riding in a little carriage. It was hard to believe that Basingstoke and Winchester lie less than 20 miles distant, and the M3 at such close range.
At the heart of the village, where three streets converge, stands Jane Austen’s House, now a museum, in an English cottage garden flanked by a low brick wall. Apart from the antique furnishings, polished to mirror shininess, the late 17th-century house is charmingly simple, an old bakehouse and wash-house remain almost as they might have been left 200 years ago. In the museum shop, amongst the gifts, cards and DVDs wrapped in smouldering shots of Mr. Darcy, there is a display case of antiquarian editions of Austen’s works. Surely ultimate souvenirs for the diehard fan.
The only accompanying sound was birdsong as I walked, later, in the footsteps of Jane and her sister Cassandra, whose afternoon perambulations would have taken them to nearby Chawton House, which their brother Edward had inherited as part of a far more sizeable estate. I passed a row of low-slung thatched cottages and again, it seemed as though time had stood still. The Elizabethan manor, now Chawton House Library, is primarily home to collections of rare and unique tomes by women writers, some dating back as far as 1600 and to which Jane Austen would have had access.
The house (though not the climate-controlled storeroom where the rarest books are kept), is open to the public, as are the rather wonderful grounds which a team of shire horses (stabled on the estate so visitors can say hello) help to maintain. Here, along the oak-panelled hallways and vast entertaining rooms, beside the very table at which she would have dined with her siblings, the spirit of Jane seemed to linger. Or perhaps it was simply that the hordes at the museum hadn’t made it this far.
From the sweep of the driveway affording views of the little church in whose graveyard Austen’s mother and sister Cassandra are buried, I picked up a section of the Writers’ Way walking route, looping through the hamlets of Upper and Lower Farringdon beyond Noar Copse. I could have chosen a route to include the historic Watercress Line railway, and gone into Alton where the author would have shopped and visited friends. Or headed to Winchester, where modern day lures include the stylish comforts of Hannah’s B&B, Rick Stein’s restaurant (the first of four to open outside Cornwall) and, just outside the city, in Sparsholt, The Avenue restaurant at Lainston House where head chef Olly Rouse creates exciting modern menus.
Further exploration east of the motorway uncovered The Bush Inn at Ovington, the kind of pub you always hope to find, especially with children in tow, since it serves small plates of gnocchi, risotto and fish and chips in perfect lunchtime portions, on the banks of the River Itchen. Odiham delivered modern pub-with-rooms, Bel and the Dragon, and finally, the quintessentially English village of Selborne served up a tearoom, pottery and Gilbert White’s House. White, an 18th-century naturalist and pioneering gardener, is thought by some to be the first ecologist.
House and gardens are set up to engage visitors of all ages, and includes The Oates Collection of artefacts from the Scott Expedition. When the Year of Literary Heroes concludes, what they left behind will remain, and all this still here, in a rather special corner of the county.
For more short breaks by car in the UK, see hertz.co.uk/inspiredbritishbreaks
Pick up your car from Hertz Southhampton Airport, Southhampton, SO18 2NL, Telephone 01722 5800110. Or pick up your car from your local Hertz location. See hertz.co.uk for more details.
A Range Rover Sport from the Hertz Prestige Collection would add comfort and class to this short break.
For more short breaks by car in the UK see hertz.co.uk/inspiredbritishbreaks.